Through the spring of 2015, residents in Yorba Linda spoke out against plans to add 340 houses on 469 acres deep in the hills above their neighborhoods.
The Esperanza Hills project is bordered on the east and north by permanently wild and wildfire prone Chino Hills State Park. The project is located in County territory so the decision was in the hands of Orange County Supervisors.
When the project came forward in 2012, residents were still reeling from the frightening experiences they encountered in the 2008 Freeway Complex Fire where
over 280 homes were lost. We remembered there was no water at the fire hydrants. We recounted how two lane neighborhood streets became gridlocked
with cars fleeing three abreast. Even Yorba Linda Boulevard was gridlocked. We relayed how few fire trucks made it up these same streets to fight the fires. Our concern is understandable when more houses are proposed because many of us barely escaped this fire with our lives. No roads have been widened nor will they be for this project.
The crux of the issue is that the Esperanza Hills developer only secured one legal access for the property. Orange County Fire Code requires two access points for projects over 150 units. This project has 340 units. The one access road,
situated on the eastside of the project, crosses the Whittier-Elsinore earthquake fault, makes three hairpin turns, and proceeds down steep grades, then up, and then down again before emptying onto Stonehaven Drive—one of the hardest hit areas in the fire. Stonehaven itself is a steep two lane residential street.
The developer also has a 50’ wide easement through the adjacent property, but even it is not fully secured. This easement is the proposed emergency access. It would be gated and (hopefully) opened during a fire, but is not available for daily use. However, the easement for this road applies to only 33 acres of the 469 acre Esperanza Hills project. So, even the emergency access is not really secured.
The Stonehaven route, known as Option 1, was specifically eliminated from further consideration by Supervisor Spitzer in June 2015 because of its inherent dangers. Supervisor Spitzer vehemently expressed his concern about the steepness, the zigzags, and the fact that it was unfair to existing residents to dump all of the project’s traffic into their one neighborhood. The other Supervisors agreed with Spitzer’s sensibilities and eliminated Option 1 by virtue of their subsequent unanimous vote. Another proposed project right next door, called Cielo Vista, would also empty all of its 80 houses a third of a mile down the same street.
Residents have always supported two daily entrances and exits—one on the east
and one on the west, because it is safer for everyone to diffuse the traffic. The City of Yorba Linda wisely chose to have Aspen Way as the preferred route to the west and Stonehaven as the secondary daily access on the east. But so far, the developer has refused to buy an easement or fee title to the land to cross Cielo Vista to Aspen even though it has been offered for sale.
After the project was approved in June 2015, residents sued to stop it. They won the lawsuit because the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was found to be inadequate and the mitigations for Greenhouse Gases (GHG) were improperly deferred. The County was ordered to immediately revoke approvals of the project and the EIR, fix the GHG section, and comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The County is in the process of doing that. Whether their attempts are adequate remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the developer is now proposing an end run around CEQA in hopes of receiving permission for a whole new scheme, one that was never studied in the original EIR. Now this developer wants to have all 340 houses empty only onto Stonehaven, the route the Supervisors specifically took off the table.
In place of the hairpin turns and grade changes, the developer has proposed an enormous bridge as the single daily access. This new bridge, known as Option 1 Modified, is a huge structure estimated to be 500 feet long, 150+ feet high, and 60 feet wide. He claims that the impacts of a bridge were studied in the original EIR. The “bridge” that was actually studied was an arch culvert – 26 feet long, 13 feet high and 40 feet wide—hardly comparable.
Visual simulations of the bridge were finally submitted at the request of the Planning Commission and were later revised by the applicant. However, no assessment of the new impacts was provided. This is a clear violation of the law.
The “artist’s rendering” of the bridge shows a lovely cascade of plants draping down
to cover the ugly concrete structure traversing a wild canyon. If it weren’t so perilously ignorant, it would be amusing. Vegetation like this is called ladder fuel. But no studies were conducted to reveal this kind of alarming oversight. What other impacts have been missed? The canyon that the bridge crosses burned very rapidly in 2008. The developer’s own evacuating residents will be sitting ducks on that bridge as embers ignite the surrounding vegetation ahead of the flame front in the next fire.
When the project went before the OC Planning Commission last month, the two experienced Commissioners voted no. They said the project needs two daily entrances for 340 units and the bridge was not adequately studied. Whether the Supervisors will hold true to their word to safeguard public safety by turning down this “Hail Mary” bridge remains to be seen.
Marlene Nelson is part of the Leadership Team for the Yorba Linda resident group Protect Our Homes and Hills. The group is actively opposing the Esperanza Hills project due its numerous public safety concerns.
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